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Home > Business > Columnists > Guest Column > A K Bhattacharya

Kalam goes off the beaten track

February 19, 2003

President A P J Abdul Kalam's 75-minute address to Parliament on Monday contained 78 paragraphs.

Of these, as many as 32 paragraphs dwelt on economic issues, 17 paragraphs focused on issues pertaining to foreign policy and India's relations with other countries and the rest talked about diverse issues such as national security, domestic political environment, Ayodhya, science and technology, children, education, women, health, youth, states, electoral reforms, judicial delays, culture, non-resident Indians and Kalpana Chawla.

Traditionally, the President's annual address to a joint session of Parliament in February sets the tone of the government's agenda for the year.

But over the years the annual speech of the President to mark the beginning of the Budget session of Parliament has lost its relevance.

Routine enumeration of broad policy goals and achievements that have already been widely publicised has ensured that the President's annual address is reduced to a boring and ritualistic exercise.

Every year, the President comes to Parliament as part of a ceremonial procession, delivers his address and returns to Rashtrapati Bhavan.

It is true that the President's address is debated in both the Houses and a vote of thanks to the President is also required to be passed. The government's failure to get the vote of thanks passed can be hugely embarrassing for the ruling party.

Apart from this, however, little attention is paid to the President's annual address.

Yet, this is one document that represents the collective voice of the government even more than the Budget which the finance minister presents to the Lok Sabha a couple of weeks later.

The Union Budget is not debated in the Cabinet before its presentation. The finance minister merely outlines the key Budget proposals an hour before he actually unveils them before the Lok Sabha.

The President's address, in sharp contrast, is a document that gets the Cabinet's stamp of approval before it is read out in the Central Hall. No wonder, it is treated as a detailed statement from the Union government on its policies and action plan for the year.

A draft address is debated by the full Cabinet of the Union government. The Constitution is quite clear on this. The President is free to read out the speech only when it is authorised by the Cabinet.

But this year, Mr Kalam's address to Parliament made a big departure.

With over 40 per cent of Mr Kalam's speech focusing on economic issues, the Union government has left no one in doubt about its priority. Mr Kalam was not only very comprehensive in outlining the government's tasks on hand, but his emphasis on certain issues was very significant.

Take for instance, his announcement that the much-debated recommendations made by the task force on direct and indirect taxes, headed by Vijay Kelkar, would be the road map for creating a stable, transparent and efficient tax regime.

The government could not have been oblivious to the controversy the recommendations of the Kelkar panel created.

Most political parties, including the BJP, were uncomfortable with the proposed phasing out of the tax exemptions and levy of taxes on agricultural income.

Finance Minister Jaswant Singh, who had himself asked Mr Kelkar to prepare such a report on tax reforms, has maintained complete silence.

Mr Singh's silence at a time the Kelkar report has been pilloried from all quarters has been taken as an endorsement of a view that the government is not prepared to upset the middle class who would be most hurt by the proposed direct tax reforms.

Given this background, Mr Kalam's forthright endorsement of the Kelkar panel's recommendations on tax reforms comes as a big relief.

Similarly, the President committed the government to the introduction of the value added tax (VAT) system from April 1, even though there are many procedural problems which still need to be sorted out. There are states, which are still not happy about the proposed VAT system and fear revenue loss.

Their fears have not been allayed despite assurances that such losses would be compensated. But the President's assertion on VAT is a sign of a confident government that is determined to push through difficult tax reforms.

Mr Kalam's address was a disappointment only for two reasons. One, he was silent on the key issue stalling labour market reforms.

The President talked about minimum wages, provident fund benefits and a comprehensive law for workers in the unorganised sector. But there was no assurance on amending the industrial disputes law to facilitate retrenchment and closure of companies.

The President's speech has also completely overlooked issues pertaining to India's trade policy particularly with regard to the stand the government should adopt in the forthcoming meeting of trade ministers, to be organised by the World Trade Organisation at Cancun in September.

A statement from the President on the government's approach towards labour market reforms and trade policy would have gone a long way in clearing doubts on these two controversial issues.

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